I had absolutely no intention of seeing this one. The trailers didn’t wow me, the title is way too unwieldy, the director was totally unknown, and it was Fox delivering a big-budget reboot of a classic sci-fi property. Because, you know, it worked out so well the last time they tried that. Additionally, there’s the fact that I’m a total novice to the Planet of the Apes franchise, unless you count the Tim Burton remake roughly a decade ago (and really, why would you?).
This had all the stench of being the latest idiotic cash-grab from Fox, on top of being a rebootquel that no one asked for of a franchise I didn’t care about. I had precisely zero reason to see this movie… until the reviews came in. They were all raving about this amazing movie. And I was confused. Granted, I might easily understand how Andy Serkis could deliver some amazing work as a mo-cap monkey (God knows he’s done it before), but how could the rest of this movie possibly be good?
Let’s start with the visuals.
I’ll grant that there were a couple of shots near the beginning that irked me a bit (that whole “zooming into the eyes” thing is so cliche), but the cameraman thankfully cut that out very quickly. Those minor hiccups aside, the cinematography, editing, production design and special effects all mesh perfectly together to keep the movie enthralling at all times. The special effects deserve particular mention. Even though they may not always be 100 percent, they’re always 80 percent at the very least. Together with a groundbreaking performance by Andy Serkis (I’ll get back to him later), this movie does a superlative job of bringing these monkeys to vivid life. During the action sequences — and also during the long, sweeping shots of monkeys swinging around — this movie fires on all cylinders, to breathtaking effect.
Then there’s the script. To start with, this movie’s pacing defies description. The credited writers are Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Pierre Boulle, author of the original “Planet of the Apes” novel, was paid tribute with a posthumous writing credit) both of whom somehow managed to cram at least 120 minutes’ worth of character development, thematic development, exposition, action, and plot into 105 minutes of screentime.
One of the writers’ more brilliant moves was to put two scenes of monkey mayhem within the first fifteen minutes. First of all, the chaos adds a lot of flavor to what would otherwise be a boring exposition dump about this wonder-drug for Alzheimer’s. Even better, this first glimpse of ape/man conflict sets the tone for the rest of the movie and sends the strong message that further animal testing with this drug might not be the best idea. Last but not least, these action scenes introduce the themes of animal rights ethics, humanity’s dominion over animals, etc., doing so in a dynamic and visually exciting way. And again, this is all within the first fifteen minutes. Wonderfully done.
Something else that I appreciated is how the script doesn’t necessarily paint the researchers as villains. These doctors aren’t mad scientists, they’re just dedicated professionals who are trying to save lives with a cure for Alzheimer’s. Granted, there is one bigwig (David Oyelowo, and I promise that’s not a typo) who’s focused primarily on the cash to be gained and lost, but he narrowly avoids the cliche of being a money-grubbing stereotype. This guy isn’t greedy or malicious, just stupid and short-sighted.
However, as a dedicated student of bioscience, I do feel obligated to point out some of the movie’s lapses in scientific accuracy. Not all of them, of course: I can suspend disbelief for the sake of a drug that miraculously allows brain cells to repair themselves, and I can accept that such a drug would respond differently to human immune systems as opposed to chimp immune systems. What I can’t accept is how, when faced with the possibility of adverse immunological reactions in humans, the company didn’t respond by testing on a different model organism. They could have and should have moved forward with studies on mice, which are cheaper, easier, and (believe it or not) more accurate subjects. If you want to know how costly this lapse in judgment was, just remember to stay for the credits.
There’s also the fact that the movie shows chimps captured from the wild for research purposes. It’s very important to note that we don’t do that anymore. The non-human primates used in labs were all bred in captivity for the purposes of research. This naturally means that they’re more docile and cheaper to procure than apes from the wild. Perhaps more importantly, this means a greater amount of data in regard to genealogy, medical history, and other variables that would be vital to account for in any reputable medical study. The point being that this movie used a falsehood for the purpose of making a moral point that might have been just as valid if the plot had gone ahead and used chimps that were bred in labs. Ah, but the inept moralizing doesn’t end there.
I was crossing my fingers with the hope that apes might be driven to revolt by humans who weren’t entirely two-dimensional douchebags, but no such luck. Instead of the scientists, it’s actually the staff of a primate shelter that abuse monkeys for no better reason than to be assholes. The most abusive of them is Tom Felton, who plays a stupider and more comically over-the-top bully than Draco Malfoy ever was. His boss (and father) is played by Brian Cox, who at least has the ability to play “immoral crook” with some degree of gravitas.
Then there’s Freida Pinto. I couldn’t help falling a bit in love with her while watching Slumdog Millionaire, so it broke my heart to see her totally wasted as the love interest. Pinto’s character could have been removed from the film entirely and it wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way. That is not an exaggeration. She contributed zip, nada, zero, and zilch. Compare that to John Lithgow, who elegantly served as James Franco’s father and motivation. Not only was this character an indispensable role in the movie’s plot and the development of our two lead players, but Lithgow played him in a sensitive and empathetic way. I’ll grant that Lithgow didn’t exactly bring anything new to the table, but playing an Alzheimer’s patient is definitely one of those times when it’s better to be safe than sorry.
All of this brings me to James Franco, here playing the movie’s lead scientist. What really makes Will Rodman work as a character is that even though he’s ambitious, he isn’t looking for fortunes, promotions, or places in history books. Even though he’s a brilliant man, his character isn’t defined by logic. In fact, Will very stupidly begins testing his wonder-drug in ways that are unethical and in violation of several FDA regulations, all to make sure that his dad gets cured. Giving the character a dad with Alzheimer’s might have come off as a lazy means of giving Will a quick and easy motivation, but Franco makes it clear that this is just who Will is. He isn’t the kind of person who can just sit by as someone close to him suffers. Above all else, Will is a character driven entirely by emotions, and it’s his tremendous heart that gives him such a great connection with Caesar. To sum up, Will was clearly a character built around that old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Now, you may have noticed that I haven’t called Will “the hero” or “our protagonist,” and I’m sure you’ve already guessed the reason why.
I’m glad to say that Andy Serkis has already been getting some Oscar buzz for his work in this movie, as the praise is both long-overdue and well-deserved. I can’t even begin to describe Serkis’ work here because words honestly fail me. This movie follows Caesar’s entire life — from birth clear up to the ape revolution — and Serkis plays every stage of the chimp’s development beautifully. Serkis makes this character intelligent and energetic and empathetic in ways that absolutely must be seen to be believed. What’s even more interesting is that there is absolutely nothing human about Caesar. Blessing him with extraordinary intelligence didn’t suddenly make Caesar a human, it just made him an extraordinarily intelligent chimpanzee. This superlative performance, coupled with state-of-the-art CGI and enhanced with a masterful score from Patrick Doyle, all come together to make Caesar one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve seen all year.
Still, where Serkis really shines is in those scenes when he’s playing multiple apes. It’s frankly quite shocking how well these monkeys communicated in a way that the audience could easily understand. Aside from two or three moments when the movie has to use subtitles (only as translations for the rare sign language conversations), these apes communicate in a way that’s always easy to understand, and all without any spoken dialogue. Of course, it helps that the film occasionally uses such universally recognized movie cliches as “the death monologue” to get the point across. The bottom line is that these apes are all immediately sympathetic, which makes it nearly impossible to hate them when the bananas hit the fan. Yet at the same time, there’s the fact that these apes are fighting against us. Both sides went into this conflict with the best of intentions and it’s impossible to completely hate either of them, which gives the climactic revolution a tragic edge.
The climax of this movie was astonishing for many reasons. Yes, the special effects were fantastic and all, but I’m far more impressed with how this movie dealt with a very important question. It was a simple and obvious query that I held onto as I went into the theater: Why don’t they just shoot the monkeys?
It is a sad, unfortunate truth that people are very good at shooting monkeys. Several ape species are endangered precisely because they aren’t bulletproof, and I didn’t see how some brain serum would change that. Furthermore, a simian revolution would inevitably bring the monkeys against the U.S. Armed Forces, and very few powers on Earth are better at killing huge amounts of primates — human or otherwise — than the U.S. military.
Fortunately, this matter was dealt with in many ways.
First of all, these monkeys are shown as faster, stronger, smarter, and more agile than any human. These monkeys know that the hairless apes in uniform are armed, and they employ all manner of clever and spectacular ways to take out the opposition while keeping away from bullets. These apes use their environment for weapons, for shields, for cover, and even for stealth attacks. Also, there’s the fact that if a man gets within arm’s reach of a full-grown angry gorilla, no weapon made by mortal hands is going to save him.
Secondly, there’s the fact that the climax takes place in downtown San Francisco, and also on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not like anyone could open fire in a place filled with terrified civilians, and it’s doubtful that any politician would authorize a missile strike to destroy a national landmark without thinking twice. Thirdly, this ape revolution took everyone by surprise. There was absolutely no time to deploy the military or the National Guard, so the apes only had to deal with the SFPD. As for additional human support… well, just remember to stay through the credits.
The movie ends with a brazen cliffhanger for a sequel. I’d normally consider that a point against the movie, but not here. This really does feel like a movie with its own beginning, middle, and ending. It tells the story of how Caesar came to power, and it’s an amazing story in its own right. Having said that, I do feel like the ending didn’t do justice to Franco’s character. His character arc felt entirely unresolved, and I strongly doubt that the sequel (if there is one) will provide that closure.
All that’s left is to add that this movie will definitely be more satisfying for those who are actually familiar with the classic franchise. The movie includes all sorts of nods to the previous film in ways that are both subtle and overt. A lot of them are so prominent that I could clearly tell they were references, though the significance of them was entirely lost on me. However, I clearly noted the franchise’s most iconic line, though I’m sad to say it went to Tom Felton’s character.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a miracle. That isn’t to say it’s a perfect movie, but a film directed by a total nobody and written by a couple of hack horror screenwriters should not have been this good. Andy Serkis’ performance alone makes this movie must-see material, but it somehow meshed together with a wonderfully-paced script, a phenomenal score, spectacular action, and another great performance from Franco.
I won’t try to pretend that this movie doesn’t have flaws, but it’s still quite intelligent and a whole lot of fun. Go see it.